Friday, May 25, 2007

Why Stories Matter

A few weeks back I mentioned environmental psychology but a recent article in the The New York Times introduced me to another, even more interesting subgenre of the field: narrative psychology.

According to the author, Benedict Carey, "Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones."

I find this a lot easier to believe than the so-called Secret, although I think it also explains part of the Secret's appeal, along with its individual stories of success.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Photograph (and Memories)

In the name of research, I’ve recently permitted myself to order from several atypical menus. Yesterday I ate something unexplainable. Not sickening or repulsive, just baffling.

The restaurant was La Villa Rouge, housed in the former EMI Recording Studios. The place has made more than one “best of Shanghai” list over the years, and is reported to boast a team of Japanese chefs. The setting is stylishly retro, overlooking Xujiahui Park, complete with music memorabilia. The prices are utterly modern, if not exorbitant.

I ordered ceviche, expecting something that would go down well with a cold beer and got this instead: four blandly boiled shrimp, and a few specks of caviar, served in a martini glass, on a bed of what looked like pudding and tasted like instant mashed potatoes. No hint of the advertised lime vinaigrette.

Just thinking about this disappointment makes me want to remember some of my favorites, and there have been many, in places as far apart as Los Barriles, Mexico, and Tokyo, Japan.

Halibut ceviche at Alaska’s Double Musky Inn in 1989. A Filipino version, called kinilaw, at Balicasag Island Dive Resort, near Bohol. And conch salad, made dockside in the Florida Keys, before the U.S. ban on conch harvesting.

Here’s that recipe, if you ever find yourself in an appropriate spot. Catch six conchs and pack them overnight in crushed ice. After the grip on the shell loosens with the chill, pull the animal free. Trim away the guts and peel off the skin. Dice the conch meat into a punchbowl along with two sweet onions, two green peppers, and a quart of cherry tomatoes. Season the mix with cilantro and jalapenos and cover with fresh lime juice. Refrigerate for at least several more hours, or as long as you can stand it.

An Updated Guide to Shanghai

In Shanghai, the more things change, the more they continue to change. It’s hard to overstate the pace of transformation in this place. For anyone who plans to visit the city in the near term, here are some guidebook regulars that no longer exist or are currently under renovation:

Hengshan Moller Villa. One of Shanghai’s so-called boutique hotels. To picture the larger setting imagine Hans Christian Andersen meets the Pasadena Freeway. Knock on the gate if you desire a conversation straight out of the Wizard of Oz. No, you can’t look inside, but the hotel is scheduled to re-open in the fall of 2007.

Peace Hotel. The adjective legendary means Noel Coward wrote “Private Lives” here in 1930 and the same jazz band was still playing last year. (At least they sounded like the same band.) The Jinjiang Group has joined forces with Saudi and Swiss companies for two years’ worth of remodeling.

Ohel Moishe Synagogue (and its museum of the Jewish experience in Shanghai). Completely shrouded at the moment. Should re-open to the public by late August or September. Mr. Wang, the 88-year-old volunteer docent, who grew up in the ghetto himself, holds court now at Huoshan Park, a block away.

Ohel Rachel Synagogue. Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright visited in 1998. When I tried last week, the security guards wouldn’t let me in the driveway. No lengthy explanations, just a sheet of paper whose words I can’t quite recall. Something like, “Private business. Closed to viewing.”

Xiang Yang Market. Although cash is still king, the emperor’s favorite source for fake brand-name goods has been gone for almost a year. Several pretenders to the throne have emerged, most notably the Fenshine Fashion Accessories Plaza, at 580 Nanjing West Road.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mao in Love

Last week I visited the restored lane house where Mao lived for nine months in 1924 with the second of his four wives, Yang Kaihui, their two young sons, and Yang’s mother. He was thirty-one years old. The Chinese Communist Party was an infant of three.

Many historians now estimate that Mao could be held responsible for 70 million deaths.

Yang might be included in this number. She was arrested in Changsha by a local warlord, and executed on November 14, 1930. Mao, who was by then a leader of the Red Army—and involved with another “revolutionary wife”—made no move to save her.

Some of this information, of course, is not mentioned in the exhibit. The official text, in Chinese and English, is properly fawning. For example: “Although from 1927 to 1949 Mao Zedong was unable to come to Shanghai personally . . . , Mao Zedong timely gave instructions to point out the way forward for the struggle of the People of Shanghai.”

The setting is benign, approaching somnolence. On the morning that I went, there were no other visitors. Without any sense of historical perspective, you might imagine yourself at a shrine to the love-nest of some long-forgotten martyrs.

Note: Although at least one guidebook lists a Weihai Lu address, the entrance is around the corner at 120 Maoming Lu.

To restore your sense of Shanghai’s reality, enter the gate at 590 Weihai Lu and walk north toward the Nanjing Road West Metro Station. I revived considerably by watching the lane’s residents hanging laundry and washing vegetables.